Alaska politicians want specifics of Obama energy plan

Erika Bolstad

WASHINGTON -- In an energy security speech that focused heavily on increasing domestic oil and gas production, President Barack Obama mentioned Alaska just once.

The mention came just after Obama criticized oil companies for sitting on leases, and right before he suggested that there's also a need to focus on cleaner, renewable sources of energy that won't have as significant a contribution to climate change.

"We're also exploring and assessing new frontiers for oil and gas development from Alaska to the mid- and South Atlantic," the president said in his major policy address Wednesday at Georgetown University. "Because producing more oil in America can help lower oil prices, create jobs, and enhance our energy security."

Obama used the speech to lay out a four-part energy security policy with the ambitious goal of cutting U.S. imports of oil by one-third over the next decade. He called for increasing domestic production including the nation's natural gas reserves, developing low carbon-emission technologies such as nuclear energy, and promoting more energy efficiency.

Alaskans were crestfallen the state was mentioned just once as a domestic energy source.

"I'm disappointed to once again not hear specifics on how he intends to build incentives for production or to tap Alaska's resources," said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, although he added he was pleased the president articulated an overall national energy policy.

"Not being negative about Alaska is a positive," Begich said, but added that it's his belief Alaska should be viewed "as the prime location for new, safe and responsible resource development."

"Clearing the way for responsible development of these energy sources is absolutely necessary if the president is serious about achieving his goal of cutting our imported oil by a third in the next decade," he said.

Begich and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, both decried the use-it-or-lose-it approach the administration has taken in recent days, including an Interior Department report issued Tuesday that found two-thirds of offshore leases in the Gulf of Mexico and more than half of onshore leases on federal lands remain idle.

"I'm coming from a state where we've been waiting for six years now for an air quality permit," Murkowski said, referring to a permit sought by Shell to drill in the Arctic. "This easy response ... belies the fact that this administration has done an extraordinary job of making it difficult to get to production."

Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she couldn't argue with Obama's message of increasing domestic production -- and she pointed to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and even the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as places where it could be done, were the administration willing.

"I like the words, but now let's translate those into actions," she said.

The president didn't mention Alaska's proposed gas pipeline specifically when he spoke about developing the nation's domestic natural gas resources. But Begich said he's been in "constant conversation" with the White House about the project.

Begich said he's convinced it remains on the president's list of top so-called green projects in the nation, although it's had diminished prospects since the Alaska Legislature crafted the legal and political framework for a gas project in 2007.

Begich said he believes the federal government is ready to do its part on the permitting end if the state can do its part and get the project to the point where it's financially viable.

Young wasn't as optimistic about the proposed pipeline, though.

"That's not going to happen," Young said. "Who would build one, if it could be built? Who would pay for it?"

Murkowski said she takes a longer-view approach to natural gas in Alaska. Although the president's proposal focused mostly on developing safe practices for shale natural gas, she believes the emphasis on greater use of natural gas in vehicles and other uses will just increase the demand for it. That's good for Alaska and its more conventional reserves, Murkowski said.

"The focus on natural gas is good -- that is domestic production, it doesn't just have to be Alaska production," she said. "I want to make sure we're doing it all in this country. And by the way, we have more in our state than just about anywhere else."